Cutting-Room Floor

Susan Rice’s Middle Finger, and the World’s Deadliest Wars

After serving alongside Rice during the Clinton administration, John Prendergast finds the criticism of her now surreal.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters, via Landov

As Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has emerged as a leading candidate to become secretary of State, she’s faced a barrage of attacks on her temperament and worldview. In one much discussed and recently reported anecdote, Rice, then an assistant secretary of State during the Clinton administration, wielded the middle finger during a particularly intense debate with the late Richard Holbrooke.

I was there, and what has not been reported is that she was arguing that the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Congo, with its billion-dollar-a-year price tag, should be mandated to disarm the worst human-rights-abusing militias in Congo’s war zone. She lost the argument.

A dozen years and 12 billion dollars later, literally millions of Congolese people have died in the deadliest war the world has known since World War II, mostly as a result of the destruction wrought by the very armed groups Rice was trying to counter.

So it seems surreal that a fusillade of criticism has been unleashed against Rice’s record on Congo. In the time I served in government during President Clinton’s second term, I saw a diplomat who relentlessly pursued a peace agreement in Congo. I accompanied her on grueling trips to all the countries that had sent troops into the Congo in what was dubbed “Africa’s First World War,” working assiduously on a ceasefire and withdrawal deal to remove the foreign elements from Congolese soil. I remember a particularly poignant moment when she went toe to toe with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, pressing him relentlessly to agree to a phased troop withdrawal. She didn’t win every round, but she never backed down when pursuing peace.

One current critique centers on her perceived support for Rwanda’s President Kagame and reluctance to call Rwanda out for its ongoing support for rebels in eastern Congo. Some of the analysis seems to accept the erroneous notion that Susan Rice, not President Obama, is deciding U.S. Africa policy. She is being singled out for a policy that many question. But the disconnect stems from a fundamental debate over what the current U.S. approach to Congolese peace should be. Some believe that quiet diplomacy with Rwanda will move the region closer to peace, while others contend that punitive measures against Rwanda would hasten a solution. Honorable people can disagree over strategy and tactics. But the implication that Ambassador Rice—who continues to work diligently on the Congo issue—is somehow motivated to protect President Kagame because of guilt over the genocide or other theories is insulting.

I personally may disagree with aspects of current U.S. policy, but I certainly don’t question whether our ambassador to the United Nations is doing everything she can to support a path to peace in Congo that she believes is the right one.

Now to Sudan. I’ll never forget a dozen years ago when Ambassador Rice decided to go to rebel-controlled areas of southern Sudan despite dire warnings about our security and safety. Rice and our small team spent days traveling through the bush, meeting with survivors of villages that had been burned to the ground, with recently freed slaves, with women subjected to systematic rape, with people who had almost no food because the Khartoum regime was using starvation as a weapon of war. Her heart broke repeatedly but her resolve deepened to help end the world’s second deadliest war since World War II.

She was a leading voice throughout her time in the Clinton administration for stronger pressure on the Khartoum regime, both for its human-rights atrocities and its support for international terrorist organizations. She helped build the foundation to the North-South peace process by helping to create an effective forum for interested governments and by ensuring that the top African diplomat appointed as the lead mediator was an equally steely Kenyan general who ended up negotiating the 2005 deal between the two parties. When out of government, she spoke out repeatedly in support of tougher policies. And then as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., she worked closely with President Obama to build the international coalition in support of a peaceful referendum for South Sudan’s independence, thus averting a resumption of North-South war and preventing the deaths of thousands, at a minimum.

The work is not done in either Congo or Sudan. War continues. But Ambassador Rice will be at the center of international efforts to end those conflicts for as long as it takes, and then she’ll focus with equal zeal on any deal’s implementation, something that is too often left on the cutting-room floor of policy.